Saturday, December 23, 2006

Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: Myanmar 1

Part 1: A More Perfect Union Chapati

You’d think living in New York for five years would mean I knew how to cross the street. I’ve narrowly escaped getting my ass run over by a trishaw multiple times in the past week. This particular day I started to cross, forgetting that traffic outside of Thailand comes from the left, and heard different horns from bicycles, trishaws, motorcycles, and cars all vying for tiny portions of the one lane I was currently occupying. I was hungry and could have made it, but I wasn’t about to let my obituary read that I was run over by a horse-cart on my way to eat Chapatis in Myanmar.

I hadn’t eaten anything since a bad batch of fried rice sent my stomach into spins more than a day ago. Last night, Josh came back excited that he found cheap food and a guy that spoke Thai to eat with. We sat down on the tiny stools set up in the Mandalay sidewalk across the street from our hotel, waiting for the 20 cent meal that would fill us up with Indian goodness.

There were a lot of people around this crowded Chapati stand in the middle of a sidewalk. We had marked the stand down in our guide we were compiling for PCVs who wanted to visit Myanmar on the cheap. It had no name, but was right in front of the Union Solidarity and Development Association. We spoke to each other many times that day in hushed tones of reverence, awaiting those delicious “Union Solidarity Chapatis”.

Sure enough, Josh’s friend strolled up minutes later, introduced himself as Ngisef, and sat down with us, making sure his traditional longyi didn’t snag on his stool. Ngisef went on to talk about his experience as a migrant worker in Thailand, when he was younger. He wasn’t sure how to use the verb indicating “ing”, but he knew how to say “police”. Thailand has no path to citizenship for foreigners, period. So for Thailand’s growing migrant workforce (80% of which is from Myanmar), police is a good word to know.

Ngisef left Myanmar to work in Thailand for a year because Myanmar is the slowest growing nation in Southeast Asia, and is oppressed by a military junta that forces its farmers to sell its rice at 1/6 of its market value.

Normally, I wouldn’t be interested in traveling in a country ruled by a military junta. Just one of my buttons, I guess. Many travelers protest traveling to Myanmar because the government would profit from tourism. But since I’m technically a government officer in another military junta, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to see Myanmar. Taking a paid vacation from one junta to visit another.

The moat of Mandalay's Palace was restored using slave labor. No, not hundreds of years ago, a little more than a decade ago.

All juntas are not equal, however, and Myanmar sets the standard for just how low you can go. So far Thailand has just provided funny headlines. Myanmar’s are somewhat less comical; “Slavery, Oppression, Corruption, Murder” are not exactly the same as “Thai Soldiers Ordered to Smile”. My Thai coworkers were very concerned about me visiting Myanmar. “There are many soldiers there! It’s a military junta! Be careful.”

Ngisef explained to us that that morning, Military Intelligence had gathered outside our hotel to question a Canadian family who had made the mistake of visiting the National League for Democracy Headquarters in Yangon. In the last election, the NLD won 80% of the seats in Parliament. So naturally, the junta chose to ignore the election, arrest the party leader, and go on as if nothing happened. The NLD headquarters in Yangon is not a tourist destination, and these unlucky Canucks had been tailed all the way to Mandalay.

We asked Ngisef is he was afraid to speak to us about the government. He naturally scanned the surrounding area. In Myanmar, tourists are usually ignored, but the Myanma people who talk with them concerning politics are heavily punished. Josh and I were fairly sure that the military abduction of two PCVs, though, would lead to some minor international incident. “No one here speaks Thai,” he told us. “They have no idea what we’re talking about.” And it’s true, though next door neighbors, Myanmar and Thailand can’t communicate. Maybe a good thing.

Ngisef and a few others in Myanmar asked Josh and me what things were like in Thailand after the coup. “Same as before”, we said. We were out of the country during the planned protests of the coup on Constitution Day, which is an interesting holiday considering the Thai constitution was abolished.

Military juntas, you may not know, are extremely meticulous constitution writers. Despite operating without one, all these juntas are hard at work dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on the piece of paper that will provide their countries freedom, forever. Myanmar has been working on its constitution since 1992. So… look for that. 15 years of checking punctuation should make that one kick-ass constitution.

This sign, placed facing the US embassy, reads "People's Desire:

1) Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views

2) Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation

3) Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State

4) Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

Why the Myanmar government prints signs like this, in English, for me to read, is beyond me. First of all, the language is just silly. Let's be honest, it's kind of hard to be intimidated by someone who's talking trash like a Rocky villain.

As we dipped the last bits of our Union Chapatis in bean curry, Ngisef thanked us for letting him practice his Thai, and we thanked him for talking with us. The Union Solidarity and Development Assocation- a damn good place to eat Chapatis in Mandalay.

Later during the trip, Josh sat in bed reading some background info on Myanmar as I listened to Jimmy Buffett on my bed. “Hey Brian,” he said, “According to this, the military junta has its own political party too.”

(Wait for it)

“It’s called the Union Solidarity and Development Association”

At which I sure hope they don’t speak Thai, because I know if they nabbed us, those bastards would make it look like I was run over by a horse cart for sure.

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